Sunday, April 29, 2018

Sermon: Philemon 1-25 Love's Appeal

It’s the stuff of soap operas. Things are getting along fine, and then comes the drama. An old familiar face returns again, and sparks are about to fly. The viewer is left to guess what’s going to happen, as the regulars respond to the new situation. Is the new character out for revenge? Looking for money? Or coming to sort things out?

Tonight, we’re going to cover one whole book of the Bible. While it may not be possible to cover all 150 Psalms in one sermon, or even Isaiah’s 66 chapters, we are going to cover a Bible book in one sermon, in one night. And tonight, our Bible book comes in the form of a letter, written from the apostle Paul to Philemon (whichever way his name is pronounced!).

The setting for the reading of the letter is just as shocking as anything you might find in Eastenders or Coronation Street - only this is real life. You’ll see from the first verse who the letter is written to - Philemon, Apphia (who may be Philemon’s wife), Archippus, and the church in their house. In these early days of the Christian faith, there were no church buildings to meet in. Instead, the churches met in peoples’ homes, packed in as they heard the teaching and prayed and loved and served each other.

The letter comes from Paul to this house church carried by the one who will cause everyone to gasp for breath. One who was well known in those parts, but who hadn’t been seen for some time. One who was never expected to be seen again. One-simus. Onesimus.

Onesimus had been a slave, who used to work in Philemon’s house. That was, until he ran away (and it seems, may have stolen some of his master’s goods). Now, if you were Philemon, how would you react to this returning runaway? Would you throw your arms around him, or throw the handcuffs on his arms? What happens next?

Before you’re too hasty, Onesimus presents the letter, written from Paul to Philemon - the letter we have in front of us tonight. What does Paul say to Philemon? And what does a letter about a slave have to say to us, almost two thousand years later?

We might think that the opening verses are just the formal fluff, and we need to jump in to verse 4, where we get the meat of the letter. But don’t rush over the first verses. Do you see how Paul describes himself? In every other letter, Paul describes himself as an apostle. But not here. He’s simply ‘a prisoner of Christ Jesus.’ He’s not using the apostle card. He reminds Philemon that he’s writing from prison.

And then in verse 3, he offers grace and peace. The undeserved favour of God, and the peace of God. Things that Philemon didn’t deserve, but has received. Keep that in the back of your mind as we read on.

Paul continues with a thankful greeting. When you’re giving feedback, you’re meant to say something positive, then something to work on, then another positive thing. It seems as if Paul had been on that course! He highlights the things in Philemon’s life that he is thankful for: ‘I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints.’ (4-5)

Philemon is known for his love for the saints and his faith in the Lord Jesus. If we were to get a letter from Paul, would he highlight our faith and love?

Paul then prays for Philemon in verse 6 - maybe this is the challenge, the thing to work on: ‘I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.’

Paul is quite clear that our faith is not to be a private thing - it’s to be shared, actively. There’s a little book on evangelism called ‘how to give away your faith.’ And that’s the idea here - to share it, to give it to others to also own it as their own. And did you notice what comes when we’re active in sharing our faith? We will ‘have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.’

When we are sharing our faith, telling others, then we get questions, we have to think about the faith, learn more ourselves, and in the process, we grow too!

Back to the positive! And in Philemon’s case, it again centres on his encouraging qualities, as we see in verse 7: ‘Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.’ (7)

Philemon has been generous in demonstrating his love - because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through him. Obviously, he is wealthy (he has slaves), but he’s not selfish. Rather, he uses what he has for the good of other Christians, and especially those who are in need.

So Paul highlights the impact Philemon has had on so many people - through his faith and love. He does that, because now he goes on to ask that he demonstrate this in this particular case.

You see, we’re called to be consistent Christians in every part of our lives, not just the bits that suit us, on a Sunday morning or evening, but in every aspect of all we do - our business, our home life, our relationships, our work, rest and play. As we look at Paul’s appeal, we’ll see that so many of the same words and ideas come up again - love, sharing/partner, goodness, heart, refreshed.

Paul has something to ask, in this appeal. He recognises that he could have come across heavy handed; could have given orders; but that’s not what he does. Look at verse 8: ‘Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love.’ Do you see? He’s not giving orders, although he could. He’s appealing on the basis of love. He appeals for his son (in the Lord) to be accepted, and welcomed back. On what basis? That of love

Just as Philemon has been accepted through the grace of God and the Lord Jesus, leading to him being loving and generous, so Paul appeals for Philemon to show that same love and grace in this case. You see, Onesimus himself has been transformed because of the good news.

It seems that when he ran away, he made it from Colossae (where Philemon lives - see Col 4:7-9 for the connection between Philemon and Colossians) the whole way to Rome, where, somehow, he found Paul. While there with Paul, he became a Christian, and has been changed. Previously, he was useless - he was a runaway slave - but now, he is living up to his name: useful.

While Paul would like him to stay with him, helping him while he’s in prison, the right thing to do is send him back to his master - but with this appeal. You see, Paul says that he is not just welcoming back a slave, he’s now a ‘dear brother’.

This is the transforming power of the gospel of the Lord Jesus. Too often we regard our faith as a private thing - it’s just between me and God; it doesn’t affect or influence any other area of our life. We’re not that bothered about other Christians, or about church.

The New Testament won’t allow us to be just Jesus and me. Rather, it’s all about Jesus and me and you and our brothers and sisters in the local church and in the worldwide church (and in the church at rest). Our relationships with each other should be transformed - so that we regard ourselves as brothers and sisters - dear brothers and sisters in the Lord.

And then Paul gets to the bottom line. The bill. Philemon might be thinking to himself - well, ok, but all this has cost me big - if he stole some money or goods, the damage he has done to me. But Paul says to receive Onesimus as if he was Paul - and to charge to Paul’s account anything he owes. It might be a big debt or small, but Paul will sort it out he will pay it back.

Now, as he reads the letter, Philemon might think - that’s good, I’ll not have lost anything... until he reads the next line. Paul reminds Philemon of the even bigger debt that Philemon owes: ‘not to mention that you owe me your very self.’ You see, Paul brought Philemon to faith, his whole salvation (on a human level) is because of Paul’s preaching. When you compare the debt, Philemon owes even more!

The letter to Philemon is like a real life worked out example of the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt 18:23-35). When Philemon considers the huge debt and offence he has been forgiven by his Master; his own loss at the hands of Onesimus is like nothing.

It’s as if Paul is writing firmly with tongue in cheek, getting his point across. ‘I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.’ (20-21)

You’ve refreshed other peoples’ hearts - now refresh mine, in the way you treat your returning slave. Apply the gospel to this situation, as you have done to other parts of your life. Let this reconciliation show others how serious you are about following Jesus.

Maybe as I’m speaking, you’re thinking of someone you need to be reconciled to. Someone, maybe in this congregation. How might the gospel lead to reconciliation?

It’s as we consider the grace with which Paul starts and ends his letter that we learn how to relate to our brothers and sisters in the church. With the love and grace we have received, so we should love each other.

It’s not always easy. It’s sometimes very costly. Yet we hear the command as well as the gentle appeal - this is the way, walk in it. Jesus says: Love one another, even as I have loved you.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 29th April 2018.

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 15: 20-34 Raised: the firstfruits

I wonder if you’ve ever got a shock when doing the laundry. You’ve had a load of whites in the wash, you open the washing machine, and your nice white shirts or blouses are now a delicate shade of pink. One stray red sock made it into the pile, and everything else is affected by it.

We’re taking a few weeks to look at 1 Corinthians 15 - the resurrection of Jesus and what it means for us. So far we’ve seen that Jesus was raised according to the Scriptures (as told by the eyewitnesses); and last week we thought about the consequences of Jesus not being raised - our preaching would be in vain, your faith is in vain, we’re telling lies about God, we’re still in our sins, and we’re to be pitied most of all.

But, Paul says, we don’t need to worry about those things - because ‘Christ has indeed been raised from the dead.’ So Jesus really was raised - we can be sure of that fact. From today on, we get to see what that means for us - both in the future, and in the here and now. And it all starts with v20. ‘But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.’ Jesus is described as the firstfruits.

Out at the side of the rectory, there are a couple of apple trees. Right now, the leaves are just coming on the trees. But shortly, the apples will start to appear. And in due course, we’ll have the first apple that’s ready to be picked. That’s the firstfruit, the sign that the harvest is on the way. The sign that it’s almost apple tart season! The firstfruit has arrived, and the rest of the crop will follow, and it’ll soon be time to gather it in.

Jesus is the firstfruits (v20) - ‘of those who have fallen asleep.’ So Jesus’ resurrection is the first one, a pointer to our resurrection, if we’re linked to him. Do you see how verses 21-22 compare and contrast? ‘For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.’

Death came into the world through one man - Adam. That was in the Garden of Eden, when he took the forbidden fruit, when he disobeyed God’s command, and sinned. As Romans reminds us - the wages of sin is death - so Adam’s sin brought death into the world. But now through one man - Jesus - the resurrection of the dead has also come. Jesus has done all that was necessary to overcome death, through his perfect obedience and his sin-bearing death and his being raised to new life, so resurrection to new life is available to us.

We just need to be connected to him. That’s what v 22 shows us. By nature, all of us are IN Adam. You see, Adam wasn’t just acting on his own behalf in the Garden of Eden. He was acting as our representative, our head. The choices he made, the action he took affects us all. We see something like it all the time. For example, you might talk about how ‘we won’ or ‘we lost’ even though you weren’t playing on the field - how your team plays affects you, you are connected to their actions, for good or ill.

Or maybe your boss decides that everyone will have to work longer hours. Their decision affects you, whether you like it or not. Well, in the same way, we are all in Adam. He chose to disobey, and we all follow him in sin, and will also die. But the contrast is there again - ‘so in Christ all will be made alive.’ Being connected to Adam brings death, but being connected to Christ brings life.

So which one are you in? Or, if you’d like to put it like this - who is driving your bus? We all start in Adam’s bus; we all have the end destination of death - but have you got off his bus and got onto Jesus’ bus? Are you in Christ? It’s not automatic. The ‘all’ in Adam is not the same ‘all’ in Christ - as we see in verse 23. ‘But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.’ Those in Christ are those who belong to him.

The bus driver gets to the stop first, the passengers follow behind. The needle goes through the material, and the thread follows behind. The firstfruits are gathered in first, and then after a while comes the rest of the harvest. Christ has been raised. That has already happened. We can now be sure that those who belong to him will also be raised. So are you only in Adam, or are you also in Christ? Are you confident of this hope?

Jesus has been raised, the firstfruits. Our resurrection in him is assured. But Jesus’ resurrection is also the first taste of his kingdom rule. The Old Testament prophecies of Psalms 8 and 110 are fulfilled as Jesus reigns until all his enemies are under his feet. It’s maybe a sign that I’m getting old, but I have a footstool, which sits in front of my rocking chair. It’s so good to sit down and rock, but even better to rest my feet on the stool. Well Jesus’ enemies are what he rests his feet on, and Paul says that the final enemy to be destroyed is (26) death.

The resurrection is like D-Day in World War Two. The victory is assured, but the war isn’t over yet. Death continues to claim us. We continue to have funerals, but not forever. Death will not have the final say. Death cannot have the final say. It too will be like my footstool, under the feet of Jesus. Death will be no more. The firstfruits shows us that. Just as Jesus rose, so we too will rise, freed from death, in new resurrection life, just like Jesus.

And knowing that this will happen in the future must change how we live in the present. The Corinthians seem to be aware of that, based on what might be one of the hardest verses of the Bible to understand. Verse 29, people being baptised on behalf of the dead. One commentator suggests there are 40 different possible interpretations.

So here we go... number 1... No, don’t worry, we’ll not look at them all today. It seems to be that someone had believed in Christ, but died before they were baptised, and someone else was baptised on their behalf. But why bother with that if the dead aren’t raised?

Or why would Paul bother putting himself in danger (v30), travelling round the known world to tell people about Jesus if the dead aren’t raised? No reason at all. He even describes the danger as fighting wild beasts in Ephesus. But there’s no point to all that, if the dead aren’t raised.

To sum it up, look at verse 32b: ‘If the dead are not raised, Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’

Now, notice it doesn’t say, let us eat and drink for tomorrow we diet... Paul is quoting from Isaiah 22, where Isaiah speaks to people under siege. They reckon that God won’t be able to save them, that this is their last day on earth, so they might as well have a good time.

And we might be tempted to this sort of thinking as well. If this world is all there is, if this life is all we have, then we might as well enjoy it while we can. And that’s what the Corinthians had been told by the false teachers they were listening to, and by the society around them. If the rest of the world thinks that this life is all there is, it can be so easy to buy into their thinking. If the rest of the world thinks that the route to happiness is more stuff, it can be so easy to buy into their thinking.

But Christians are called to be different - because we know where we are going, and what lies ahead of us. So don’t be misled - maybe you were told that by your parents when you were younger. Asked who you were going out with, whose company you were going to be in. V33: ‘Bad company corrupts good character.’

That’s where the Corinthians were - listening to the wrong voices, believing the wrong things. They needed to stop being deceived, waken up, and not keep on sinning. They needed to know who God is and what he has promised and what he is capable of.

Christ has been raised as the firstfruits. We too, if we are in him, will be raised. The life we have is not our own - it is Christ’s, for him to use us as he pleases. For Paul, it felt like dying every day, as he gave himself to share the good news of Jesus, in danger every hour. Of seeking to persuade people to move from being united to Adam, to being united to Christ. Of giving people a hope and a future.

There are only two sorts of people in the world. Those who are in Adam, connected to him; and those who are in Christ. Harvest time is coming. The firstfruits have already been gathered in. Christ is raised - will you be gathered with him to reign with him?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 29th April 2018.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 15: 12-20 Raised: or not?

Over the Easter holidays we started playing the card game Uno. Some of you are experts at it, and we should maybe start a church Uno tournament! But just in case you haven’t played it before, here’s how it works. You are given some cards, each of which have a colour (red, blue, yellow and green), and a number 0-9. There are some wildcards, so you can change the playing colour to whatever you want; and some trick cards, to change direction or to make the next player pick up two or four extra cards.

The idea of the game is to get rid of your cards by matching one of your cards to the card that’s in play on the table. So if it’s a red 2, you can put down any colour of 2, or any red number, because that’s a match. But sometimes, you have to watch your opponents carefully. You see, if you’re not watching, they might try to sneakily put down a green 4 on top of a red 2. But the green 4 doesn’t fit - it isn’t a match. It doesn’t go with what’s already there.

In our Bible reading this morning, Paul is dealing with a similar sort of mis-match in the church in Corinth. There’s something that they believe that doesn’t fit with something else that they believe. The two things don’t fit together. And as Paul tackles this issue, he helps us to see why it matters that Jesus has been raised from the dead.

Last week, we began looking at this chapter on the resurrection. And we saw that the death and resurrection of Jesus is the most important thing that we can know about - it was Postman Paul’s first class post. And the epic Jenga game reminded us that the resurrection of Jesus is what we build on. If it isn’t there, then our whole Christian faith will fall. But we can be sure that Jesus is alive, because of all the eyewitnesses who saw him - the people the Corinthians could have gone to ask, ‘is it true?’

So the first card that’s on the table is the resurrection of Jesus. Anything else that we do needs to line up with this. But some of the Corinthians were trying to play a different sort of a card. One that didn’t match at all. One that was out of place. We see it in verse 12:

‘But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?’

Some of the people in the church didn’t believe in any sort of resurrection. They didn’t think that anyone would be raised to new life in a new body. For the Greeks, they thought that the body was just a kind of container for the real you, your soul, and that when you died, then your soul could go free, finally escape from the confines of the body.

And, when you think of it, that sounds very like what people around us believe as well. So we might hear (or even say), he’s free. She’s become an angel. She’s a star now. She’s looking down on us. Some maybe even thought that this life is all there is (yolo - you only live once).

Do you see how it doesn’t match? Christ has been raised, but there’s no such thing as anyone being raised. It doesn’t make sense! And, if there’s no resurrection, then not even Christ has been raised. (13) And so, as we work our way through these verses, Paul will show us what the future would be like if there’s no such thing as the resurrection; and especially if Jesus hasn’t been raised from the dead.

The passage breaks down into several sections; each showing the implications of there being no resurrection. Simply put, Paul is saying, ‘If Christ has not been raised ...’

We see the first in verse 14: ‘If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.’

Without the resurrection, then it’s pointless to preach, and it’s pointless to believe. I wonder if you ever heard about the wee boy who was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. He said he wanted to be a preacher. Why’s that? he was asked. Well, if I have to go to church, it looks like it’d be more fun standing up shouting than sitting down listening...

And if any of you want to have a go, just let me know on the way out! Paul says that his preaching is all useless, pointless, a waste of breath and a waste of time - if Christ has not been raised. If we have no message of a risen Jesus, then it’s all for nothing. Worse than useless. We might as well pack up and go home. If - a big if - Christ has not been raised.

And if preaching is useless, then so also is your faith. To trust in a still-dead Jesus would be absolutely pointless. Sometimes people put their hope in a sports team, and they always only ever find disappointment. But to believe in a Jesus who isn’t alive would be even worse. Pointless. He wouldn’t be able to help or save or do anything for you. Worse than useless. That is, if Christ has not been raised.

In verse 15, we see another consequence of Jesus not being raised. ‘More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we testified that he raised Christ from the dead.’ Paul’s preaching wouldn’t just be useless - it would be positively criminal. He would be telling lies about God and what God had done! To say that God raised Jesus, when God hadn’t done that would be a massive lie, a fearsome false witness against the God who tells us not to bear false witness.

In verse 17 we see another implication of their thinking. ‘If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.’ Last week we celebrated the fact that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and was raised on the third day... But if Jesus only died and stayed dead, then he wouldn’t have paid the price for our sins. We would still bear them ourselves when we die. And so believing in Jesus would be pointless. Futile. Without the resurrection, we have no salvation; no forgiveness; and no hope.

That’s what Paul comes on to in verse 18: ‘Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.’ If Christ has not defeated death, then we will not overcome death either. And that means that the people from Corinth who have already died trusting in Christ are also lost. It’s all over - if Christ has not been raised.

And that brings us to the last of the implications. We see it in verse 19:

‘If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.’

If the hope that Christ gives us only lasts in this life, then it’s worth nothing. If Christ cannot help us beyond death, then there isn’t any hope in the first place. And so for us to hope in Christ is pitiful.

Recently in the news there was a warning about holiday scams. Last year, it seems, some 4,700 travellers fell victim to these, losing on average £1,500 each. They had made their booking (or so they thought), sent off their money, in some cases even arrived at the airport, but there was no booking; no holiday; the scammers had taken the money and ran.

So is Jesus a bit like that? Says all the right things, it all looks to be in order, but when our time comes, he’s no help at all? If he hasn’t been raised, if we only have hope for this life and not for what comes after, then we are to be pitied most of all!

I hope that you’re beginning to see just how important the resurrection of Jesus is for us. It wasn’t just something that happened one day two thousand years ago, but doesn’t really impact us. Rather, it affects us here and now, today. It’s a bit like the river Lagan flowing through Dromore. In the town park, there are a couple of bridges over the river. We used to have stick races, to see whose stick made it from one side of the bridge to the other first. But my favourite thing to do was to find a stone. As big a stone as I could find. And then I’d go to the bridge, and drop the stone into the river. The ripples would spread out, from the stone itself out and out, so that the whole width of the river felt the ripples.

So if Jesus hasn’t been raised - what does Paul tell us it would be like? Our preaching is useless. Our faith is useless. Paul has lied about God. Our faith is futile. We are still in our sins. Those who have fallen asleep are lost. And we are to be pitied most of all. That is, if Christ has not been raised.

All this, because the Corinthians were out of step with the Bible. Their thinking wasn’t matching up to God’s truth. And so, they were in danger of experiencing all these things, of being mis-matched with God’s word. And this is where we would be as well, if Christ has not been raised.

Now, we could end here. Hopeless, helpless, lost and pitiful. We could leave you dangling on verse 19 for a week, but you’ll be glad to know that I’m not going to do that. All those things would be true, if Christ has not been raised.

Verse 20: ‘But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.’

If you’re trusting in Christ today, then you’re not hopeless, or helpless; you’re not lost or pitiful. Why? Because Christ has indeed been raised. As the stone rolled away from the tomb, the ripples still roll out to us today. Life, hope, joy, purpose, peace. They are all yours, if you are in Christ, trusting in him, connected to him.

But if you aren’t in Christ; if you don’t know him; then you’re still without hope. Your only hope for this life and beyond is the Lord Jesus. He is the only one who could walk out of the tomb; he is the only one who gives us hope in this life and beyond.

Take some time to ask the hard questions - is Jesus really alive? how can I be sure? how do I get to know him? It really will be worth it, because Christ has indeed been raised from the dead. Match up what you believe with what has happened in the life of Jesus.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 22nd April 2018.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Sermon: John 21: 1-14 It is the Lord!

Our niece was telling me the other day about how she was at the beach over the Easter holidays with her friend. A little further along the beach, coming towards them, was someone from their school. And so she started shouting ‘hiya!’ and waving frantically, and started running up to them. And when they were only a few feet apart, she realised that, actually, she didn’t know the girl at all. Had never seen her before. She looked like someone she knew, but it wasn’t her at all! So, completely embarrassed, had to apologise and walk away rather quickly!

The story stuck with me, as I was thinking about this story - and asking the question, how do you recognise someone you know. In that case, the person looked familiar but it wasn’t actually them. So how do you recognise someone? There was a story in the news over the weekend of how a drug dealer was recognised by a photo of their hand, with a fingerprint being matched through the photo found on a phone. Now, that’s high-tech police work, but how does it work in everyday life? How do you recognise someone?

Normally it’ll probably be their face. And, more particularly, their eyes. A study by psychologists at Barcelona University found that it’s the eyes that have it - you look at them first, followed by the shape of the mouth, and then the nose.

If you can’t see their face, you might recognise them by their voice, maybe, or their body shape, or the way they walk or move or do something - their mannerisms and behaviour. As we look at this story, John tells us that it’s all about Jesus appearing again to his disciples. So watch and see how the disciples recognise Jesus. How do they do it?

John tells us how it came about. We’ve relocated from Jerusalem, where chapter 20 took place, back to Galilee, where it all began. The disciples had been following Jesus for three years. They may not have been fishing for a while, and so Peter decides that he’s going to go fishing.

Was he maybe forgetting about the whole Jesus thing? Going back to his old family business? Giving up and going home? Maybe, or maybe he was just going fishing, after a stressful time in the city.

Whatever the reason, he’s with six of the other disciples, and when he announces that he’s going fishing, they all decide to go too. Thomas is there, Nathanael, the sons of Zebedee (James and John), and two other disciples.

So they climb into the boat, and spend the night fishing. Or at least, trying to fish. It was a bit like the guy who went out to the river to fish, and all day he got nothing. So he called into the fishmongers on the way home, and asked him to throw a couple of fish at him. Why? asked the fishmonger. So I can say I caught them!

The disciples have caught nothing. Talk about a wasted night. No fish, to eat or sell. What a bunch of fishermen! Maybe they were out of practice; they’d forgotten how to do it; they’d forgotten the tricks of the trade; how to read the waters and the fish and to get a catch.

Now, John lets us into the secret of who is standing on the shore in verse 4. But remember that the disciples don’t know that it’s Jesus. They didn’t realise it was him - they don’t recognise him by sight from a distance.

And Jesus shouts out at them, probably the worst question to ask a group of fishermen. It’s the question that you want to ask, when you see them sitting on the pier or by the river, or in Hillsborough Forest - well, have you any fish? Caught anything? Only, it’s almost worse the way Jesus asks it: ‘Friends, haven’t you any fish?’

He’s showing that he knows that they don’t have any! He’s making sure that they know he knows they don’t have any! Haven’t you any fish? Now, there’s only one way to answer that, when you don’t have any. ‘No!’ What sort of fishermen are they? They’re the sort of fishermen who didn’t recognise Jesus’ voice either.

So Jesus gives them some advice. ‘Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.’ (6) Now we’re not told what they thought of someone standing on the shore telling them how to do their job! Maybe it would be like a backseat driver telling you how to drive the car... But like it or not, they did it. And, as verse 6 continues, ‘When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.’

The stranger on the shore knew exactly where the fish were. He knew how to get a large catch. There was only one person who could do that. And the disciples had seen it happen before. On the same lake. After a night of failed fishing. When someone had told them to put their nets in a certain place for a catch. That same someone was now standing on the shore.

They may not have recognised him from a distance, or recognised his voice, but by his actions, it suddenly twigs. ‘Then the disciples whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!”’ John recognises Jesus, tells Peter, and excitement suddenly seizes him.

Now, normally when you’re jumping into the water to go swimming, you take off unnecessary clothing, but here Peter puts on his outer cloak to jump into the water. Off he swims, the hundred yards, as the other disciples follow in the boat, dragging the net full of fish. Peter can’t wait for the boat, he wants to get to be with Jesus. Is that our desire? To want to be with him, no matter what it takes? Or do we only want to be with him when it suits?

When they come ashore, they see ‘a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.’ (9) Do you know, whenever I finish preaching, I can be quite hungry. So when I get home this evening, I’ll get the toaster going, and have some supper. Now if that’s after preaching, then I can imagine that after a hard day’s night, working like a dog; sorry, a night of working hard at fishing, the disciples were starving. So Jesus provides for them. He has the beach barbecue lit, and some food already on it. Fish - which he already had - and bread.

I’m sure it smelled good, and tasted good. Perhaps we should have had a bbq tonight! But even though Jesus has it all sorted, he tells them to bring some of the fish they had just caught. Fish which Jesus had also provided for them.

Peter brings the net ashore. It’s full of fish, large fish at that, 153 of them, to be precise. But even with so many, the net wasn’t torn. That figure, 153, is a detail that shows us that this is an eyewitness testimony. They counted the fish, and remembered the figure, it was so impressive.

When Jesus invites them to come and have breakfast, John writes a strange line. Look at verse 12. ‘None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord.’ It’s almost as if they know, but still aren’t sure - they can’t quite take it in that the Jesus who was crucified is now alive, and inviting them to eat with him. They dared not ask, because they know it is him.

Jesus himself serves them, taking the bread and giving it to them, and the same with the fish. He supplies their physical needs, as well as confirming that he is indeed alive. Once again he is known and recognised by his actions, by his servant-heart, taking bread and giving it.

This evening, Jesus invites us to his feast - not a breakfast bbq - but the supper of bread and wine, as we recall his death for us and celebrate that he is indeed alive. As you come to the table, take a moment to recognise that the Lord is here, offering us the sustaining food we need. May we know that it is indeed the Lord that we encounter here, as we look forward to the heavenly banquet, when we will see him face to face.

May we have the eagerness of Peter, an earnest and eager desire to be with the Lord - not just here in this building, but everywhere we go, to know his presence with us, his power within us.

It may have taken them a while to recognise him, not by his body shape, or by his voice, but eventually by his familiar action, the supernatural provision of the catch of fish. But once they knew it was the Lord, they rejoiced, and they went to be with him - the third time he appeared to them, after he was raised from the dead. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Hallelujah!

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 15th April 2018.

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 15: 1-11 Raised - according to the Scriptures

I wonder if you can guess what one of my favourite TV programmes was when I was a boy. It featured someone called Patrick Clifton. Anybody know? Mrs Goggins was in it as well. If that doesn’t help, then what about a line from the theme song; ‘Maybe, you can never be sure, there’ll be knock, ring, letters through your door.’

You’ve guessed it by now - I loved to watch Postman Pat! With his black and white cat (Jess) he would go around Greendale delivering the post - bringing what he had been given and delivering it to people.

This morning, in our reading, we don’t have Postman Pat, but we do have Postman Paul. Look at verse 3. ‘For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance.’ Paul had received something, he had been given it, and then he passed it on - he delivered it, just like Postman Pat does. He brought it to the people in the city of Corinth.

If you’ve posted a letter recently, you’ll know how much a stamp costs. Anyone know? Second class is 58p and first class is 67p. So, for the sake of 9 pence, you have to decide, is it really urgent, or can it take a wee while longer to get there?

Do you see how Paul described his delivery? Was it something that didn’t really matter? No! ‘For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance.’ It would need a first class stamp, or even the guaranteed next day signed for delivery service. What could be so important? What is of first importance?

‘That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared...’ (3-5)

You might recognise those lines from the creed we use at the Family Services. And the reason we use it as a creed is because it tells us what Jesus did - he died, he was buried, he was raised, he appeared. This is the very heart of the whole Christian faith, the things that happened that first Easter weekend.

Postman paul tells us that he received this - he didn’t make it up. He was told it, he received it, and then passed it on to the Corinthians. He says that Christ died - that Jesus was crucified. But notice that we’re told why Jesus died. ‘Christ died’ is history, ‘Christ died for our sins’ is the reason, the theology for Jesus’ death. He died ‘for our sins.’

And to help us see how important these statements are, I want to play a quick game of Jenga. Do I have four volunteers? We’re going to take it in turns to move a brick to build up the tower higher and higher... (Play game)... Eventually, the tower falls. When one brick was removed, the whole tower collapsed. That one brick was needed to hold everything else up. And the cross and the resurrection of Jesus is that one brick. It’s the one thing that everything else is built on. If that didn’t happen, then there’d be no Christianity, no church.

But in those verses you might have noticed that there’s one phrase that is repeated. It comes twice in a couple of lines. Can anyone spot it? It says twice: ‘according to the Scriptures.’ It says that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures...’

I used to think that this meant that was talking about the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which tell us about the crucifixion and the resurrection. According to the scriptures. But Postman Paul doesn’t mean that! He means that Jesus died and was raised in accordance, matching up with what it says in the Old Testament scriptures. The promises were there beforehand.

It’s like a game of snap - when you see the same thing twice, it’s a match. What the Old Testament said long beforehand, it all happened to Jesus. He died on the cross, and he was raised to life.

Postman Paul says this is of first importance. But how can we be sure that it happened at all? At the start of verse 5 he says: ‘and that he appeared to...’ Jesus appeared to Peter, then the Twelve, then five hundred brothers at the same time, then James (his brother), then all the apostles, then Paul himself. And Paul is the most surprising of all. Paul actually persecuted the church. He hated Christians, and tried to arrest them. Until he met with the risen Jesus for himself. He received God’s grace, his undeserved favour, and became a believer for himself.

Paul gives details of all these eyewitnesses because the people in Corinth could go and ask them what they had seen. They could check out the details, make sure that Postman Paul was indeed telling the truth. All of those different people met Jesus and saw him alive after he had died. We can believe because of what they saw and experienced.

But why is it important for us to know this, and to be sure of all this? Why does Postman Paul want to deliver this to us as of first importance?

We see the reason in verses 1-2. He wants to remind us. We can so easily forget about this, or get caught up on all sorts of other things that aren’t as important. So we need to remember what’s most important of all.

We need to remember the gospel - that just means the good news - the good news that Paul preached, which you received, on which you have taken your stand. Why?

‘By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise you have believed in vain.’

This good news of Jesus is the way we can be saved - as we hold on tight, we hold firmly to the word about Jesus.

So what about you today? Have you received this first class word from Postman Paul? Can you say that Jesus died for your sins? When you receive it, and believe it, then you are saved. You can know this today!

But if you have received it, you need to make sure that you don’t forget, that you don’t get caught up on other things that aren’t as important. You need this reminder of the first importance things - the base of your whole Christian life - that Christ died, was buried, and was raised.

Sometimes the real postperson can bring letters we’d rather not receive. Bills, summonses and all sorts of things. But Postman Paul brings us good news - that Christ died for our sins, he was buried, he was raised on the third day, just as the Scriptures said would happen. We can be sure that Jesus is alive - and over the next few Sunday mornings we’ll see what that means for us as well.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 15th April 2018.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Sermon: John 20: 24-31 Doubting Thomas becomes Trusting Thomas

In recent years, we’ve seen the invention of lots of new words and phrases. So, for example, if you haven’t had your dinner yet, then you might be getting a bit ‘hangry.’ My spell-checker didn’t like that word, but it’s the word to describe when you’re angry because you’re hungry. Hangry - see if you can use that one tomorrow!

Another recent addition was the word of the year in 2016: post-truth. It describes the way society seems to be moving away from truth and facts, to focus much more on personal preferences and opinions. And, when you think that 2016 was the year of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, perhaps it was the perfect word to sum up the year.

But what will it look like to live as a Christian in a post-truth kind of world? Perhaps you’ve already had the encounter with someone who doesn’t believe. They reassure you that, if Christianity works for you, then that’s nice and good, but it’s certainly not for them. It might be true for you, but it’s not true for everyone. But is that really true?

You see, at the heart of the Christian faith are a series of facts, of things that are true. We’ll affirm them later in our creed - that Jesus died; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day. That creed is either true or false. Those things either happened or they didn’t happen.

But how can we be sure? If you’ve ever wondered about the truth of the resurrection of Jesus, then Thomas is your friend. You see, we know him by another name - not Didymus, as the passage suggests, but rather his supposed full name: Doubting Thomas.

Of all the newly invented words like hangry or post-truth, there’s another one that perfectly applies to Thomas. It’s a four letter word, spelled F O M O - fomo. Anyone know what it means?

FOMO is the fear of missing out. It’s the anxiety that comes, particularly on Facebook, that you’ll be sitting at home, missing our on something exciting. So, imagine the scene. You’re at home, doing nothing much, scrolling through social media, when you see that all your friends are at a party, but you weren’t invited. You have the fear of missing out.

FOMO was only invented fairly recently, but it perfectly describes Thomas’ situation. From verse 19, we hear of what happened on the first Easter Sunday evening. The disciples were all together, doors locked for fear of the Jews. They still didn’t really understand that Jesus was risen - even though the women reported the empty tomb, Peter and John had seen the empty tomb. Then, suddenly, Jesus stood among them. He speaks word of peace - to transform and commission.

No wonder the disciples were overjoyed when the saw the Lord! Their fear was gone. They really did have hope. They could rejoice that Jesus had defeated death. All the disciples were glad. All, that is, except for Thomas, the first FOMO feeler.

Look at what verse 24 says: ‘Now Thomas... was not with the disciples when Jesus came.’ The disciples were all there; the twelve, well, eleven since Judas wasn’t around, and well, ten, since Thomas was somewhere else. Thomas was missing, and he missed out. Where was he? Had he popped to the shop? Visiting family? Out for dinner? We don’t know where he was, but he wasn’t there.

The other disciples don’t wait to share the good news when they see Thomas: ‘We have seen the Lord!’ But he won’t believe them. Do you see his threshold of proof? The kind of evidence that he’ll require before he’ll believe that Jesus is alive?

‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my fingers where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.’ (25)

He’s been with the other disciples for three years - he knows what they’re like, yet he won’t believe what they say. He wants the facts - he wants to see, and he wants to touch. Think how the conversations would have gone that week. But Thomas, we’ve seen him. We know he’s alive. Why won’t you believe us?

One whole week has passed. It’s now tonight, a week after Easter. Thomas is still unbelieving, still living up to his Doubting name. The disciples are gathered, and Thomas is there this time. The doors are locked, yet Jesus came and stood among them. Again, he speaks those words of peace. And then do you see what he does next?

The risen Jesus invites Thomas to do everything Thomas had said he would have to do in order to believe. Jesus had heard Thomas, knew what Thomas needed, and so provides Thomas with the opportunity to stop doubting and to believe.

‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’ (27).

Up to this point, Thomas was skeptical. He wanted physical proof. He wanted to see, touch, and then he would believe. But look closely at verse 27 and 28. Does he touch Jesus? Does he take up the invitation to touch his hands and side? No! He simply replies: ‘My Lord and my God!’

Thomas didn’t believe the word of the other disciples, but he did believe when he saw Jesus face to face. His doubt was gone. To misquote the Monkees song, ‘then he saw his face, now he’s a believer.’

And you might think - well, that’s all right for Thomas. He could remove his doubts by seeing for himself. Seeing is believing, isn’t it? And we won’t be able to see, so how can we believe? Do we need to take a leap in the dark?

Do you see how Jesus replies? ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ (29).

Jesus isn’t saying that you’re blessed if you switch off your brain and accept any old story about Jesus being raised. No, we may not have see Jesus, but we can believe he is alive, because of the eyewitness testimony of the first disciples. We can believe that Jesus has defeated death because Thomas and the other disciples met him, saw him, touched him, shared food with him.

Because Jesus died on the cross and was raised to life, Jesus is exactly who Thomas recognises him to be - Lord and God. but even that isn’t enough. And isn’t even what Thomas said! Is Jesus ‘my Lord and my God?’ Is he your Lord and your God?

Thomas might have missed out on the initial excitement of the first Easter Day, but within a week he too knew that Jesus was alive. Thomas speaks to our post-truth world, not only through his dramatic turnaround, his emotional appeal, but also through the undeniable facts - that Jesus died and rose again.

And John tells us why he writes about Thomas, and about everything else he has included in his gospel: ‘These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.’ (31).

Take some time tonight, or over this week, to read through John’s Gospel. Everything John writes is to show you who Jesus is, so that you can be sure that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. But having that head knowledge that Jesus is the Christ, isn’t enough. Here’s the rest of his purpose: ‘... and that by believing you may have life in his name.’

Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. And through John’s gospel, he says of himself: ‘I am the resurrection and the life...’ ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life...’ Jesus died in our place for our sins, but Jesus has defeated death. He is alive, and so we too can receive his life as we trust in him. This is the hope we have as we stand at a graveside; as we feel the pain of loss - that Jesus is the life, and will give us eternal life.

We can believe it because doubting Thomas became trusting Thomas. He gives us truth for a post-truth world. He didn’t miss out. And neither will we, as we trust in Jesus Christ, and say to him and about him: ‘My Lord and my God.’

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 8th April 2018.

Sermon: John 20: 10-18 In the Garden

‘Why are you crying?’ That’s the question that Mary Magdalene is asked, not once, but twice in our reading. Perhaps it’s a question that you’ve been asked yourself, as the tears have been flowing. Why are you crying?

If it’s not too painful, think back to the last time you cried. Perhaps it was in the hospital or doctor’s surgery. Maybe someone told you something you didn’t expect to hear. Perhaps you were overwhelmed by grief, or fear, or hopelessness, or a combination of all three. Maybe you stood by the grave of a loved one.

That’s where Mary was as our reading began. We’re still tracking the events of the first Easter morning. Last week we heard how she had gone to the tomb of Jesus early on, while it was still dark. When she’d arrived, she discovered that the stone had been removed from the entrance. Straight away she ran to get Peter and John. They had the race to the tomb, went in, saw the nearly empty tomb (just the grave clothes were there). But then they had gone home again.

Mary is still at the tomb, crying. So she decides to look inside. And what does she see inside? Verse 12: She ‘saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.’

And they have a question for her. ‘Woman, why are you crying?’ What’s the reason for your tears? What do you have to be crying for? So, she gives her answer, her reason: ‘They have taken my Lord away, and I don’t know where they have put him.’ She doesn’t know where he is.

But notice that she thinks that Jesus is still dead. ‘They’ - whoever they are, have taken Jesus away, and i don’t know where they have put him. That’s the same summary she gave to Peter and John earlier in the morning - see verse 2.

Someone has obviously come and moved the body. Jesus must still be dead, lying in some other tomb, or some other place. Where can he be? Her tears are flowing because the body of Jesus has been removed.

With that, she turns around, and sees a man standing in the garden. She doesn’t realise who he is - but John tells us that it’s Jesus himself. And so, again, Mary is asked the exact same question. ‘Woman, why are you crying?’ Although Jesus also adds on an extra bit - was he trying to help her to realise who he was? He asks: ‘Who is it you are looking for?’ (15)

Mary still doesn’t recognise him. She reckons he must be the gardener. And so she answers in something the same way again: ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you put him, and I will get him.’ (15)

She wants to find Jesus, and yet she doesn’t realise that he’s standing in front of her - not a lifeless body, but a life-giving Saviour.

At this point, Jesus utters just one word. Her name. Mary. And instantly she recognises him. She realises that he has been in front of her that whole time. The he hasn’t been laid anywhere, because he isn’t dead any more. Jesus is alive - risen to new life, so that he will never again die. She bursts out with that response: ‘Rabboni! which means Teacher).’ And with that, she rushes to embrace him, to show her devotion to her Lord, now risen from the dead.

Jesus tells her not to hold onto him, because he hasn’t yet returned to the Father. Instead, Mary is sent with a message for the disciples. She’s the first to have met the risen Jesus, the first to witness the resurrection, the first to share the good news that Jesus is alive.

‘Go instead to my brothers and tell them, “I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’

Entrusted with this message, Mary is the bearer of the good news of what Easter means for us. Because of what happened in the garden, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have a new status and a new relationship.

Jesus describes the disciples as ‘my brothers’ - we are included in his family, we are siblings with the Saviour. And if we are brothers and sisters of Jesus, then we are sons and daughters of the King. Jesus says: ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’

Jesus was the only one who could truly call God ‘my Father’ and ‘my God.’ From before the beginning of time, from eternity past, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit have existed, one God. But now, through his dying and rising, Jesus enables us to call God ‘our Father’ and ‘our God.’ It’s the fulfilment of when Jesus taught the disciples to pray: ‘Our Father...’ It’s truly possible now, because Jesus died for us and rose again to new life, to bring us into his family.

The garden is the place of transformation. Maybe you watch those sort of garden makeover programmes on TV. Beforehand, it’s all overgrown, with weeds and nettles, a real mess, just a jungle. And then the team get to work, and you see the progress being made until finally, it’s all done. There’s a little pond, and a patio area, and a range of plants, shrubs, and trees. The place has been transformed.

In the story of the Bible, the garden is also a place of transformation. In our first reading we heard of Eden. A garden paradise. The place where everything was good, good, and very good. The place where God walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day.

But that perfect paradise was marred forever. Adam and Eve believed the lie, took the fruit, and swallowed death. They hid from God. They blamed each other, and even blamed God. As a result, they were removed from the garden, separated from God, and suffered the effects of the curse. The perfect paradise became a place of thorns and thistles: ‘Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.’ (Gen 3: 17-19)

Thorns and thistles. To dust you will return. And yet this garden is now the place of transformation. As Jesus was crucified, what adorned his head? A crown of ...? Thorns. Jesus bore the curse, and fulfilled the curse, by dying the death he did not deserve.

Jesus now lives, reversing the curse, again bringing us near to God, so that we can call him our Father and our God. The grave could not hold him. Death could not keep him. Jesus lives, and so we too will live with him. And where will we live? In the perfectly restored garden city, where the tree of life yields its fruit; where the river of the water of life flows. So why should Mary weep? Why should we weep? Mary is transformed, there are no more tears: ‘I have seen the Lord!’

We too, can believe her testimony. And when we do, we will receive the same promise - of life everlasting. Life that begins again, in the garden.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday 8th April 2018.

Monday, April 02, 2018

Sermon: John 20: 19-23 Peace be with you

This evening gives us another opportunity to reflect on the good news of Easter. And, because it’s a praise service, we get to lift our praise to our risen and glorified King Jesus. But the first Easter evening wasn’t just as relaxed and enjoyable for the disciples.

As they gathered together, they didn’t have a chiming bell to invite any and all who would come in. There was no loud, rousing music and triumphant hymn singing. In fact, they didn’t really want anyone to join them. The door wasn’t open. It was closed. Locked. Bolted. Danger outside, fear within.

Our readings today are keeping track with the events of the first Easter Day. This morning we heard of what Mary Magdalene, Peter and John saw - Mary saw the stone rolled away from the tomb. Peter and John saw the strips of linen still lying where the body of Jesus had been. John saw and believed that Jesus was alive.

Mary (in the passage we’ll look at next Sunday morning) then meets with Jesus, and goes to the disciples with the news ‘I have seen the Lord.’ Even with that eyewitness report, the disciples are still afraid. Perhaps even more afraid now than before.

Before, they might have been scared that they would be next to be arrested, tried, beaten and crucified. Now with Jesus’ body missing, the Jews might be even angrier. They might come after the disciples to get their own back.

And so the disciples are together, on the evening of that first day of the week. They have the doors locked for fear of the Jews. They’re fearful. It’s as if they’re listening out for the march of soldiers; the arrival of unwelcome visitors.

Then suddenly, in the midst of their fear, even with the locked doors, a visitor appears. A very welcome visitor. ‘Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”

To the fearful and frightened, Jesus speaks a word of peace. Now, this greeting of peace was one that was common - indeed, still is to this day among Jews - they’ll often say ‘Shalom.’ But this is far from a customary greeting. Rather, it’s a bit like the Passover meal itself.

Jesus was celebrating Passover with his disciples, using familiar words, the same words used for hundreds of years, when suddenly he gave them new meaning, with new words added in. This is my body. This is my blood. So it is here, that Jesus takes this regular greeting of peace, but invests it with a new understanding of what peace means.

What is peace all about? Perhaps you’re looking forward to a couple of days of peace and quiet. An absence of fighting or stress or noise. But peace isn’t just the absence of war, it’s a positive, blessed life under God’s kingdom. And Jesus shows us what peace is all about.

‘After he said this, he showed them his hands and side.‘ Peace is possible only through the nail-marked hand and spear-pierced side. Jesus shows them the ‘wounds of love’ - the scars of the cross, the only basis for peace with God, and with one another.

And what a difference it makes to the disciples, knowing that Jesus is with them, that Jesus is alive, that Jesus has triumphed through the scars of the cross. ‘The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.’

They weren’t just a wee bit happy. Not just a tiny bit more thrilled than they had been before. They were overjoyed. An overabundance of joy as they see the risen Lord.

Are you like the first disciples this evening? Are you fearful, for whatever reason? Are you locked away, present, but still remote, reserved, trying to keep yourself safe and free from harm. Even behind your locked doors, Jesus appears. He is with you on the inside of your fear. And he speaks those same words to you tonight. ‘Peace be with you.’ Jesus has conquered. Jesus longs to give you joy, even to make you overjoyed. Because he is with you. He is alive.

Now, maybe the disciples thought that that would be enough for one evening. Jesus speaking peace and bringing transformation to them. That’s grand. Let’s sing up and go home. We’ve experienced that peace for ourselves. But Jesus isn’t finished with disciples who are just transformed. So he again speaks peace to them - peace to be shared.

‘Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”’ (21) On Tuesday evening we thought about the domino effect of God’s love - the Father loves the Son, who loves the disciples, who are to love one another. In the same way, just as the Father had sent Jesus, so now he sends the disciples.

The message of peace isn’t to stop with the eleven in the room. It’s a message to be shared far and wide, as the disciples are sent out to bring peace wherever they go. And once again, it’s peace with God that is front and centre.

As Jesus breathes on them, he promises the gift of the Holy Spirit. And with the action, comes the words: ‘If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’ (23)

As the disciples bring the gospel of peace, they bring the offer of sins forgiven. And we still bring the possibility of sins forgiven, if we know the gospel of peace. Just as the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus has sent us to bring this good news to everyone we meet. So that they know they have a Father who loves them, that they can have peace with God through the Lord Jesus Christ.

In a matter of minutes, the disciples were transformed by the peace Jesus offered, but they were also commissioned by the peace Jesus still offers. Have you experienced that peace yourself? If not, Jesus offers it to you tonight. And if you have, why would you not want others to share in it? Peace isn’t something to be kept to yourself. It’s something to be shared, far and wide. Jesus says, ‘Peace be with you.’ And you. And everyone. Amen.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Easter Sunday evening 1st April 2018.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Easter Sermon: John 20: 1-9 The Not Quite Empty Tomb

Today is Easter Sunday, and it’s a day when we get to enjoy some Easter eggs! Has anyone had any Easter egg yet this morning? Maybe after dinner you’ll be able to eat some!

Today I’ve brought along some Easter eggs to help us tell the story of Easter. We were doing that yesterday at the rectory, but not everyone was able to make it. So here are some Easter eggs to tell the story.

Here’s the first one. (Open it - what’s inside?) We have a cross inside. Jesus died on a cross on the first Good Friday. He died to take away our sins, all the wrong things we have done. But that isn’t the end of the story.

In the second one, what do we find? (Open it) We have a stone. When Jesus died, he was buried in a tomb - a cave. A big stone was rolled in front of the tomb to seal it.

Here’s the third one. What’s in it? It’s empty. Why is this empty? It’s because the tomb was empty. Jesus was raised from the dead, he wasn’t in the tomb any longer. Jesus is not dead - he is alive, and he gives us his new life for us to share in.

Now I have one more Easter egg. Can anyone guess what might be inside it? ... Inside we find some glasses, spectacles. Now why do we have some glasses inside this last egg?

What do you use glasses for? To see! And our Bible reading today is all about seeing. We hear about Mary Magdalene, and Simon Peter, and the other disciple (who is John himself, the author of this book of the Bible). So let’s see what they saw!

In verse 1 we’re told what Mary saw. She ‘went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance.’ The big massive stone that was in front of the tomb - it had been rolled away. That’s what Mary saw. The tomb was open. So she ran and told Peter and John.

Do you ever have races with your friends? Maybe at school. And sports day will be coming up in the summer term. Well, Peter and John had a race. They ran to the tomb. Peter was older, John was younger, and John must have been a wee bit competitive. He makes sure that we know that he made it to the tomb first (4). John says - I won the race! I’m faster than Peter!

John made it there first, but didn’t go inside. Maybe he was afraid. But he bent down and looked in. And what did he see? ‘He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in.’ (5)

Then Peter arrives, and goes on in. Verse 6 tells us what he saw: ‘He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that he been around Jesus’ head.’

now, we think of the tomb being empty. That’s even what the New International publishers have put as a wee heading at the top of the section. ‘The Empty Tomb.’ But John and Peter both see something inside the tomb. It’s not entirely empty. What did they see?

The strips of linen. Now, we need a volunteer. You see, in those days, the person who had died would be wrapped in strips of linen, with spices packed into the binding. I’ve brought along some strips of... toilet roll. And we’re going to wrap you.

When Jesus rose from the dead, he didn’t need the grave clothes any more. He didn’t need the strips of linen, so he left them behind. And that’s what Peter and John saw - the strips of linen lying in the not quite empty tomb.

The strips of linen were there, but Jesus wasn’t there. He’s alive. He is risen from the dead. And that means that we too will live with him.

Right at the end of verse 8, we’re told that John ‘saw and believed.’ He still didn’t understand from the Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead, but he did believe that Jesus had done it.

My Easter eggs remind us that, in the words of the creed we’ll use shortly, ‘Christ died for our sins... he was buried... he was raised.’ Mary saw the stone rolled away. Peter and John saw the linen strips, left behind when Jesus rose to new life. Next Sunday morning, we’ll see what else Mary saw that first Easter morning. But we can rejoice today, because Jesus is alive!

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church on Easter Sunday 1st April 2018 at the Easter Family Celebration.